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August 05, 2014 5:15 PM War on Judicial Independence in Tennessee

By Ed Kilgore

Tennessee’s system of appointing and retaining appellate judges aims at (or so says the brochure of the state bar association touting it) “keeping the influence of politics and money out of our courts.” Well, it’s not working out that way at present. In Thursday’s primaries in the Volunteer State, three Supreme Court justices seeking retention in what has in the past generally been a low-profile and non-controversial event are battling a very high-profile and expensive national and local right-wing campaign to get rid of them for alleged liberalism—yea, even for (years ago) appointing an attorney general who refused to join the lawsuit against Obamacare! Imagine that!

Here’s an overview of the fight from the Nashville Tennessean’s Brian Haas:

More than $1 million has been spent in a battle for the heart of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Three of its five members, Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee, are in a pitched fight against both grassroots and out-of-state groups sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to make the court more conservative. Among those looking to replace the justices are the Charles and David Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, which has been aggressive in trying to elect conservatives in local and state-level seats across the nation.
But the big push has come from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who provided the blueprint for the campaign to replace the three justices, not to mention the largest recorded campaign contribution — more than $400,000 to the conservative Tennessee Forum, donated through his political action committee.

Ramsey, you should know, was a heavily Tea Party-backed but unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2010, and has been a notable figure in the Tennessee GOP’s bizarre and obsessive battle against the phantom menace of Sharia Law.

He’s a fine local partner for the Kochs and AFP.

Indeed, Tennessean columnist Frank Daniels argues Ramsey’s main object here is to consolidate GOP control of state government, since the Justices do appoint the Attorney General.

But Tennessee lawyers are fighting back, per a report from the New York Times’ Alan Blinder:

Members of the state’s legal community have been lining up in support of the justices, contributing thousands of dollars and helping to secure space for campaign events. Nearly $1 million has been spent on television advertising in the campaign, with most of that money going to spots backing the justices, according to Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan group.

What makes this contest especially unbalanced is that the retention election is held in conjunction with a primary—always a lower-turnout event, and one that in Tennessee is going to be dominated by the conservative effort to dump Lamar Alexander—and on a Thursday, to boot.

The whole effort is highly reminiscent of Karl Rove’s legendary campaigns in Texas and Alabama to use judicial elections to recruit business people to the GOP and tie down trial lawyer donations to the Democratic Party. No matter how it turns out, what the war on judicial independence will most decidedly accomplish is to make a mockery of the idea of “keeping the influence of politics and money” out of Tennessee’s courts.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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